Washington's Back: What's on the Tech Agenda?

PHOTO: There is an active tech agenda pending before this Congress that carries enormous implications.
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Few Americans are aware that there is an active tech agenda pending before this Congress that carries enormous implications for technological innovation, for the privacy and free expression rights of Internet users and, ultimately, for the openness of the Internet.

This slate of issues is largely flying under the radar screen as the president and Congress grapple with a stagnating economy, the national debt and the first skirmishes of a prolonged presidential campaign season.

I retired my crystal ball some years ago; I know better than to predict whether and when Congress might act on any particular measure. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't take a moment to understand what is at stake and let members of Congress know where we stand -- firmly on the side of the open Internet.

So here are some of the top tech bills to watch:

1) Consumer Privacy

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. and Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., have introduced versions of comprehensive privacy laws. A narrower bill on location privacy has also been introduced by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

There is good reason for Congressional attention to privacy. The U.S. remains one of only two industrialized democracies -- the other being Turkey -- that have failed to enact a comprehensive privacy law protecting consumer data. Instead, the U.S. has a patchwork of sector-specific privacy laws for sensitive information like health and financial data, while leaving most other personal data without legal protection. It's a bad deal for consumers and for businesses as they seek to maintain their edge over international competitors in the Internet cloud.

It has been 10 years since Congress first considered a privacy bill. The Obama administration recently called for a consumer privacy law. Major tech companies have come on board. It is way past time to act.

2) Government Privacy

The ECPA Amendments Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is a landmark piece of legislation that would provide much needed updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 25-year-old law that sets rules for government access to email and other Internet communications.

Advances in technology have far outstripped ECPA's privacy protections, allowing the government to access personal data stored in the cloud under a low legal threshold and a patchwork of confusing standards that have been interpreted inconsistently by the courts.

The ECPA Amendments Act would require the government to obtain a warrant from a judge before reading someone's email or gaining access to private communications and other content stored in the cloud. It would also require a warrant for access to location information, whether the government is tracking people in real time using their mobile phones or accessing location records. A stand-alone bill to strengthen location privacy, the "Geolocation, Privacy and Security Act," has also been introduced in both houses by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

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